Retired marketer Seth Morrison used to support and fund Zionist organizations. Now, he is an activist who boycotts them in support of the Palestinian right to return. As a liberal Jew from Long Island who grew up with a desire to help fix the world’s problems, Morrison found himself drawn to Zionist organizations like the Jewish National Fund which promised to “make the desert bloom” in the Middle East.
He writes: “Some of my earliest Jewish memories involve dropping spare change in the Jewish National Fund’s iconic little blue boxes. I was proud that my money would help plant trees in Israel.”
His passion for helping people continued into adulthood. While building a career in consumer marketing, Morrison volunteered his time on the Jewish National Fund’s Washington, D.C. board raising thousands of dollars for the organization. He also became a member of J Street, a Zionist nonprofit advocacy group.
In 2011, Morrison publicly quit the Jewish National Fund in an op-ed for Forward, the most influential, English-language Jewish media outlet. And in 2013, he left J Street to join Jewish Voice for Peace.
Why did Seth Morrison move away from Zionism in favor of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement? It was the same reason he supported Zionism in the first place: his love for the Jewish people and helping “fix what is broken in our society.”
Planting Trees with the Jewish National Fund
Searching the Jewish National Fund (JNF) on Google opens results that tug at one’s heart strings. The first result is an ad for their website’s gift shop: “Plant a Tree in Israel – Meaningful & Personalized Gift.” The second result reads: “Donate to Israel … JNF is a not-for-profit organization that gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.”
The JNF website describes the organization as “Your Voice in Israel.” The top of the page includes a “Gaza Envelope Community Relief” donation link. JNF’s site also features a banner advertising synagogue tours in Israel: “Come Home for a Visit … Your Synagogue Will Receive $500 Per Participant!”
For liberal Jews like Seth Morrison, the JNF markets itself as an organization that supports Jews in Israel and in the United States, even in one’s own synagogue—all while showing care for the planet and humanity.
Morrison shared that he was drawn to JNF as a platform for raising funds for important causes like tackling the climate crisis and generally doing good in the world.
How the Jewish National Fund Connects to Ethnic Cleansing
The Jewish National Fund was founded in 1901 by Theodor Herzl, known as the father of modern political Zionism (learn more here about his role in selecting which lands should be colonized to form Israel). In the early twentieth century, JNF bought and developed land in Ottoman Syria and Palestine for Jewish settlement; today, the organization owns more than 10% of the total land in Israel.
Israeli historian Benny Morris reported that Joseph Weitz wrote in his diary in 1940:
“There is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries. Not one village must be left, not one [Bedouin] tribe. And only after this transfer will the country be able to absorb millions of our brothers and the Jewish problem will cease to exist.”
JNF was founded to ethnically cleanse Ottoman Syria and Palestine of Arabs to create space for European Jews—who, at the time, antisemitic European politicians considered as “the Jewish Problem”—to settle.
It’s interesting to note the Institute for Middle East Understanding, a nonprofit organization, reported that the JNF’s “Plant a Tree” campaign hid the ruins of Arab homes and villages left behind from ethnic cleansing with forests. More than 260 million trees have been planted, covering more than 250,000 acres of land.
Morrison Learns of the Jewish National Fund’s True Impact
Seth Morrison severed ties with JNF in 2011 after feeling “a sense of betrayal” at “learning that JNF is a force in preventing long-term peace.”
Morrison first began to question JNF’s role in the conflict when he learned of the JNF evicting the Sumarin family from their home in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Israel’s “Absentee Property Law” allows the state to claim homes if the owners were not present when Israel gained control of East Jerusalem in 1967.
When the homeowner Musa Sumarin died, his children were declared absentees despite family members living in the home. This allowed Israel to transfer the property to JNF, legalizing evicting the Palestinian family from their home in 1991.
Rabbis for Human Rights called for American Jews to write to JNF and ask that the eviction be stopped and more than 1,300 people wrote in. However, JNF only postponed the eviction. The Sumarin family is still fighting to stay in their home: this month, the Attorney General to the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that there be no impediment to evicting the family.
Morrison described how he learned that the Sumarin eviction was “not an isolated case;” in fact, JNF subsidiaries evicted many Palestinian families from their homes to gain ownership and then transferred those properties to Elad, a racist settlement association working to “Judaize” East Jerusalem.
“By supporting right-wing settlers in “Judaizing” Palestinian neighborhoods, JNF makes [peace] harder to achieve,” Morrison wrote in his 2011 op-ed.
Joining Jewish Voice for Peace
When he left Zionist organizations like JNF and J Street, Morrison shared with Mondoweiss that many of his friends cut him off completely. Still, he has no regrets.
He joined Jewish Voice for Peace because he believes “Israel is addicted to the occupation” and the only way to save it from itself is “tough love.”
Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national, grassroots organization inspired by the Jewish tradition, describes itself as being “guided by a vision of justice, equality, and freedom for all people” and it opposes Zionism “because it is counter to those ideals.”
JVP is working for “just and lasting peace according to principles of human rights, equality, and international law for all the people of Israel and Palestine.”
Since leaving JNF and J Street, Morrison has also joined the JVP Board of Directors as a chapter leader and major donor fundraiser. He continues to fight for justice and to end American support for Israeli apartheid.
One of Many Jewish Voices
Increasingly, Jewish Americans are learning about srael’s occupation and ethnic cleansing. They are beginning to realize that there was no empty desert in need of planting trees to bloom; instead, peaceful, non-Jewish families being displaced from their homes.
Jewish writer and scholar Stephen Zunes has been an outspoken supporter of human rights in Israel. Israeli linguist and activist Tanya Reinhart has also fought for Palestinian civil rights. Hungarian-Canadian physician and Holocaust survivor Gabor Maté has even described Israel as a “beautiful dream [that] has become a nightmare.”
Seth Morrison remains hopeful: “What gives me a great deal of hope is that, once you know the truth, there is no going back. I can personally attest to that, and I hope others will join me on the side of peace and justice by continuing to show solidarity with the Sumarin family and all Palestinians struggling to live with dignity and freedom.”